Is male/female wrestling immodest?

Is male/female wrestling immodest? December 20, 2014

I missed this when it first came out, but it is related to some of my earlier posts (e.g. here and here) about modesty.  From a Reuter’s news report in early October:

Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic bishops have adopted a policy requiring boys on the wrestling teams of Catholic schools or youth organizations to forfeit matches against female opponents.

Preserving safety and modesty are the reasons, said Joe Aponick, communications director for the Diocese of Harrisburg.

The mandatory policy, first reported on Tuesday by WITF, National Public Radio’s Harrisburg station, also bans girls from participating on Catholic school tackle football and rugby teams.

“The diocese therefore believes that it is incompatible with its religious mission and with its efforts to teach Gospel values to condone competitions between young men and women in sports that involve substantial and potentially immodest physical contact,” said Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of Harrisburg in a letter to students.

Kenneth A. Gavin, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said the policy applies to all Catholic school students in Pennsylvania. It would not apply to Catholic university students.

Under the policy, which took effect July 1, a male wrestler would either have to forfeit his match with a girl, or his team would have to persuade the other school to withdraw the girl and replace her with a boy.

The bishops will not require football and rugby teams to forfeit if the opposing team included a girl.

I have a hard time wrapping my head around this one.   At least in wrestling, I do not see safety as an issue:  wrestlers at the high school level are subdivided by weight into very tight categories, so any two wrestlers (male or female) will be closely matched in size.  It might be the case that a man and woman might be of equal size but the man will have a strength advantage due to gender difference.   However, even if this were true (and I do not know one way or another) I suspect that there would be a distribution and not a uniform dichotomy.  Further, any woman who decided to wrestle would probably be an outlier on the women’s side of the distribution, making her closely matched to the men.

Therefore, the real issue must be modesty.  And indeed, the quote from Bishop Gainer emphasizes the risk of “substantial and potentially immodest physical contact”.  I agree that wrestling involves lots of close physical contact, and many standard moves require grabbing your opponent’s groin or chest.   But does that automatically risk making such contact immodest?    To worry about immodesty suggests that such contact might be sexual in nature, but given the circumstances (two athletes trying to pin one another for the victory), this does not seem to be a real concern.  One might as well be worried that two men wrestling and grappling one another’s groins is homoerotic.    Teenage hormones are a real thing, but there is, it seems to me, a fundamental difference between a young man “wrestling” with his girlfriend on the family room couch, and two competitive athletes facing one another in a public competition.

Now, a young man wrestling a young woman might experience other, real psychological discomforts:  he might face crude comments from teammates or fans; the stigma of losing to a woman will probably be worse than losing to another man; he might have reservations because he has been taught to never hit a girl or that he is supposed to be “nice” to girls, and these might affect his composure and ability to wrestle to his full potential.   Similarly, any young woman who wrestles will have to deal with similar problems:  her sexuality and femininity might be questioned and she will have to overcome all the other hurdles a woman faces when she “trespasses” in a male domain.  These are issues that coaches would have to be aware of and handle with discretion and tact.

A brief Google search led to a discussion about this decision on a high school wrestling forum, and many of  these issues had come up and were addressed in various ways.   If what I read there is correct, women have been wrestling with men on the high school level for twenty-five years.  And they have done so competitively:  here, for example, is a brief video interview with Carlene Sluberski, who was a finalist in the 2009 New York state high school wrestling championships.   (According to the interview, it was her father that encouraged her to take up wrestling.)

One solution to this perceived problem would be to create women’s wrestling teams.  And in a couple states they have done this.   And at the college level there exist a number of women’s wrestling programs, with a large concentration in the Midwest.  However, in most places they do not exist, so the only option for a young woman who wants to wrestle will be to wrestle with men.   And, provided the issues I noted above are dealt with by the coaches, I have no real problem with this happening.

What are your thoughts on these matters?  We have discussed gender roles in the past, and I want to make clear up front that while I acknowledge differences between men and women that are more than epiphenomena,  I am cautious about ascribing universal, existential weight to differences that could very well be the result of social constructs that tell us more about longstanding prejudices against women than they do about the actual differences between men and women.   Beyond the question of modesty, one could question whether men and women wrestling one another will lead to problems in their psycho-sexual development or in the broader social understanding of gender roles.  There may be issues here, but at the moment I am not seeing them.

I will admit that I am shooting from the hip, as it were, on this question, since it is not something I have ever considered before reading this news article.  However, I have faced (and dismissed) a similar concern.  My middle son dances classical ballet, which is overwhelmingly female.  Moreover, a large number of classical pas de deux positions involved substantial physical contact between my son and the women in the company.   And while I suspect he derives some pleasure from this, the intensity with which he and the women focus on their art during practice and performances suggests an absence of prurience.    But with this example in mind, let me reframe the question:  if the bishops of Pennsylvania are correct in banning young Catholic men from wrestling with women, should they also ban young men from dance performances involving close contact with young women?  (I say performance deliberately to avoid a discussion of “twerking”, “freaking” and other misadventures when men and women dance together socially.)



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